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Surprise, Surprise: Republicans Resurrecting the Welfare Queen Model for Getting Their Way on Head Start

Ohanian Comment: When you can't win the fight, accuse the other guy of financial mismanagement. I don't doubt that there are individual improprieties, but funny isn't, it that this would suddenly get headlines--just when the Republicans want to change the power structure? Just a coincidence, for sure.

WASHINGTON, Nov. 25 Facing an increasingly raw fight over the future of Head Start, Congressional Republicans asked the General Accounting Office today to examine the federal government's financial oversight of the program, which serves almost one million preschoolers who live in poverty.

The request follows reports of mismanagement at more than a dozen Head Start centers around the country, several of which have been highlighted by House Republicans who had sought to transfer control of Head Start to the states. A limited version of the House bill to reauthorize Head Start, which would have permitted eight states to take over their Head Start programs, did not survive in the Senate bill.

Today's request, made in a letter to David Walker, comptroller general of the accounting office, did not mention specific accusations of fraud or abuse, and stopped short of requesting a full-scale audit. But it asked the agency, the investigative arm of Congress, to "examine the functioning of Head Start program monitoring and financial controls."

Sarah Greene, president of the National Head Start Association, which represents Head Start providers nationwide, criticized the Republicans for what she called "a smoke and mirrors campaign" intended to discredit Head Start providers.

The group released the results of a survey it had done showing that Head Start teachers earned average salaries of $21,000 a year, less than half the average kindergarten teacher's salary of $43,000. "If you're looking for statistics that are actually shocking here, that's the real scandal," Ms. Greene said.

The reports of improprieties have surfaced at a number of Head Start programs. One in Charleston, S.C., is under F.B.I. investigation, accused of failing to account for $10.5 million since 1998. Another program, in Kansas City, Mo., is reportedly paying $300,000 a year to its executive director as well as using federal money to lease a Mercedes for him.

The South Carolina group denies the accusation, while a spokesman for the Missouri group said it would be "inappropriate" to comment.

"The Head Start establishment has a growing credibility problem," said Representative John A. Boehner, the Ohio Republican who heads the House Committee on Education and the Work Force and who signed the letter requesting the G.A.O. review. "The information in this report will help teachers, parents and taxpayers know the extent of the problem, and should ultimately help Congress agree on some solutions."

Under current law, federal regulators review Head Start providers every three years. Republican lawmakers contend that state officials would exercise greater scrutiny.

The accusations of mismanagement are part of the debate over the program that has grown increasingly rancorous. Before the latest round of accusations, Head Start providers came out in force to oppose efforts to turn the program over to the states, accusing the administration and Congressional Republicans of trying to dismantle the program.

Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the latest effort by those seeking to transform Head Start could have a subtle, lasting effect. "If you can trash the old system, then people are more willing to try something new," Mr. Haskins said. "That's an absolutely standard political practice."

"The welfare queen," he added, "played a role in welfare reform from beginning to end."

— Diana Jean Schemo
New York Times
Republicans Urge Inquiry of Head Start





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